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Old Fort Niagara is one of the northernmost historic sites in the U.S. The impressive "French Castle," as it is called, was built in 1726. Occupied by French voyageurs, British Grenadiers, and American soldiers, these fortifications that guarded the vital water route to the west have been preserved.
But most military forts have seen both good and evil days. Just as the body of a murdered man sometimes rises to the surface of the water to expose his murderer, dark deeds that once took place here persist among the legends surrounding Old Fort Niagara, and one grisly event continues to be told.
The well in the center of the castle was there in the event the fort was ever surrounded and besieged; but after the British captured it in 1759, they feared the French might have poisoned the water. So they filled the well with dirt and covered the top with large, flat stones that matched the rest of the floor. In the 1920's the well was restored.
In those early years a burying ground lay just outside the massive gates, and over it's entrance was painted the word rest. How some of the poor mortals were sent to their"rest" in this barren field is open to speculation. Undoubtedly, there were those who came straight from the dungeon to the burying ground, there is much about this fort to establish that it also served as a harsh prison.
The dungeon was called the "Black Hole," and it was a strongly built, dark, and dismal place. In one corner was an apparatus used for strangling poor wretches who offended the rulers of those days. On the walls, from top to bottom, the men who had been imprisoned there had painfully carved their names.
To confirm the suspicions of others living near the fort that it was all too often the scene of guilt and foul murder, the bones of a woman was found while clearing out and old sink.
During any occupation, there is a need for celebrations to break the monotony, and the French often held parties in the castle. It was the custom of the officers to invite a number of indian maidens from a nearby Seneca village to be their guests.
Henri Le Clerc had left early on the evening of the party with several fellow officers to escort the girls to the castle. By the time the maidens and their escorts reached the castle, the wine was flowing freely. Unfortunately, an officer named Jean-Claude De Rochefort, whom Henri despised, had pulled up a chair and seated himself on the other side of Onita, Henri's beloved. All efforts that Henri and Onita made at conversation were futile, for Jean constantly interupted; and with more wine, his behavior worsened.
One thing led to another and the two were soon in a sword fight. As they were battling down the stairs Henri tripped and lost his balance. His head struck the floor and all went black. In a moment of insane anger, Jean raised his sword arm and ran the man through as he laid there helpless.
A little sanity, or at least the need for self-preservation, began to return to Jean. He had commited murder, for which he could very likely hang. Before his crime was discovered he must somehow get rid of the body. He decided to dismember the body and throw the pieces in to Lake Ontario. If they were found later, everyone would think that a soldier had been the victim of hostile Indians.
Using his already bloodied sword, he first cut off the head and ran with it out to the lake. Returning, he noticed the blood he left on the floor and he quickly mopped it up. Ready to resume his horrible task, he heard the sound of voices from above and realized that the party was ending and the officers and the girls would be coming down the stairs at any moment. There was only one thing he could do. With all his strength he carried the body to the well and threw it in.
The partygoers stumbled back to their barracks in a much worse drunken condition than the one in which they arrived. If there were any who wondered about Henri and Jean, they probably thought both men had retired to their own quarters. Within the week some of the officers noticed the absence of Henri, and a search was organized, but it was fruitless. There were those, including Onita, who were convinced that Henri had been murdered by De Rochefort, but they lacked evidence with which to accuse him.
Onita was certain that Henri was dead, for she knew he would have come back to her if he had been alive. Several months passed, and she didn't have the heart to go to any parties at the castle. But one September night when there was to be a party, she changed her mind. She would go, but only to listen and learn whatever she could as to the fate of Henri.
The evening passed and she was not successful. Finally as she was preparing to leave, a young man Jaques came up and spoke to her admiringly.
Two weeks later Jaques went to the village. It was on a night when the moon was huge and round with a cast to it, sometimes described as "blood on the moon." He and Onita sat talking with some of the other tribe members and she brought up the subject of Henri, which Jaques thought was not a good idea. He suggested they take a walk over to the castle.
The building was empty, for it was almost midnight and the men were in the barracks. Jaques began to tell her how he lingered after the others on the night of the duel. Trying to find out what happened to Henri. Suddenly they heard a noise like something scraping against stone. The clock struck midnight. And then, as the pair watched horror-stricken, the fingers of a hand edged over the side of the well. Then the other hand came up and over the rim. Now the forearms of a man emerged in what had once been a soldiers uniform. The arms resting on the edge of the well appeared to push mightily, and as they did, the shoulders and upper portion of a man's body rose out of the well. Where the neck and the head should have been there was nothing.
Jaques and Onita fled, terrified. They now knew the truth, for there was no doubt n their minds that De Rochefort had murdered Henri and dropped his headless body into the well. The well was explored, the body of the dead man was found and De Rochefort was hanged.
But those who have been there when the full moon is high over the castle say that, exactly at midnight, the ghost of the headless Frenchman begins to claw its way slowly but surely out of the well. After resting from its efforts, the ghost of Henri Le Clerc rises, dripping from the well, and moves slowly and awkwardly through the dark halls of the castle in search of its long lost head.
Old Fort Niagara is a state historic site operated by the Old Fort Niagara Association, Inc., in cooperation with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation.
The address is: Old Fort Niagara, Fort Niagara State Park, Youngstown, New York 14174.
Telephone: (716) 745-7611.
Tours are conducted throughout the year.